Despite the University of Missouri’s decision to pull out, Blue Springs is pressing ahead with development of the Missouri Innovation Park.
“Our number one priority is to provide jobs,” Mayor Carson Ross said Friday. “We hoped that a powerhouse institution like MU would help us attract companies that would employ those needing work, but we will go on.”
The Innovation Park is meant to attract innovative companies, in manufacturing and other fields, that will grow and create “good, household-supporting incomes,” said Brien Starner, president of the Blue Springs Economic Development Corp.
Green energy and health sciences are some of the fields officials have mentioned, and MU was expected to bring research and expertise that would have commercial applications. Plans had been for MU to take up about half of the park’s first building, but on Thursday the university said it will leave its current office space nearby by the end of September.
“But the fundamentals of what we’re trying to do remain,” Starner said Friday.
He said the EDC is in contact with several companies – in areas such as aviation, engineering and manufacturing, and information technology – that need space to grow.
“There’s a lot of pent-up demand. ... People have been sitting still for a long time,” Starner said.
Starner has long stressed the need to take a long-term view with the Innovation Park.
“ ... and the idea (initially) was let’s not just bring another business park into the community. There’s a lot of those in Kansas City,” he said. Instead, the focus should be on companies that would add value over time.
The university was to be an anchor in that development, which is to sit on the east side of Adams Dairy Parkway north of U.S. 40 and south of the stores and shops just south of Interstate 70. The first phase is to consist of 63 acres, and plans for a Mizzou Center were announced in 2008. The university opened offices in the Heartland Financial Building, where the EDC is, not far from the Innovation Park site. Two years ago, the city spent $2.2 million to buy land for the park.
Eleven months ago, the EDC hosted a seminar at which official after official from the university talked of the “Mizzou advantage” – areas of research in which MU has highly regarded schools and programs – and what that could mean for the Innovation Park. Specifically, they pointed to health, food, sustainable energy and the “media of the future,” such as digital storytelling.
But otherwise there was little movement by the university in 2013. Chancellor Brady Deaton, while suggesting the university was still committed, acknowledged that frustration during a visit to the area last October. But Deaton was headed for retirement, as was Provost Brian Foster, and Ross suggested the change in leadership could have contributed to MU’s change of heart.
“I believe it had to do with the change of major players,” Ross said. Asked if he received any specific reasoning on why exactly MU bailed, Ross said he got the same answer the university stated publicly: “realignment.”
It was also last fall that the EDC board held a retreat to focus on core priorities. Starner said a consensus emerged: MU might come or might not, “but we have to be committed as a community to develop this park.”
Starner said the city and the site still have strengths: It’s a gateway city for the metro area with good highway access. There’s more than 1 million square feet of developable space at and near the Innovation Park.
And things have changed. The MU deal was announced in 2008 as the economy was teetering and about to fall into the sharpest slide in living memory, the Great Recession.
“The market’s fundamentally different – some ways good, some ways bad,” Starner said.
There were indications MU was having second thoughts.
“These things don’t just happen in a day,” Starner said.
Starner conceded that there were moments of sharp disappointment but said he’s focused on the work at hand.
“I feel good,” he said. “I feel energized. I feel focused. ... I know we’re going to be successful.”
Examiner reporter Brandon Dumsky contributed to this report.